Saturday, December 11, 2010

Production Models for the 21st Century

Mark Pesce - Words.
CHU - Images.
Steve 'Fly Agaric'' - Mixing

Unevenly Distributed:

Production Models for the 21st Century

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I. The Wheels Fall Off the Cart

In mid-1994, sometime shortly after Tony Parisi and I had
fused the new technology of the World Wide Web to a 3D
visualization engine, to create VRML, we paid a visit to the
University of Santa Cruz, about 120 kilometers south of San
Francisco. Two UCSC students wanted to pitch us on their
own web media project. The Internet Underground Music
Archive, or IUMA, featured a simple directory of artists,
complete with links to MP3 files of these artists’ recordings.
(Before I go any further, I should state that they had all the
necessary clearances to put musical works up onto the Web –
IUMA was not violating anyone’s copyrights.) The idea
behind IUMA was simple enough, the technology absolutely
straightforward – and yet, for all that, it was utterly
revolutionary. Anyone, anywhere could surf over to the
IUMA site, pick an artist, then download a track and play it.

This was in the days before broadband, so downloading a
multi-megabyte MP3 recording could take upwards of an
hour per track – something that seems ridiculous today, but
was still so potent back in 1994 that IUMA immediately
became one of the most popular sites on the still-quite-tiny
Web. The founders of IUMA – Rob Lord and Jon Luini –
wanted to create a place where unsigned or non-commercial
musicians could share their music with the public in order to
reach a larger audience, gain recognition, and perhaps even
end up with a recording deal. IUMA was always better as a
proof-of-concept than as a business opportunity, but the
founders did get venture capital, and tried to make a go of
selling music online. However, given the relative obscurity of
the musicians on IUMA, and the pre-iPod lack of pervasive
MP3 players, IUMA ran through its money by 2001,
shuttering during the dot-com implosion of the same year.
Despite that, every music site which followed IUMA, legal and
otherwise, from Napster to Rhapsody to iTunes, has walked in
its footsteps. Now, nearing the end of the first decade of the
21st century, we have a broadband infrastructure capable of
delivery MP3s, and several hundred million devices which can
play them. IUMA was a good idea, but five years too early.

Just forty-eight hours ago, a new music service, calling itself
Qtrax, aborted its international launch – though it promises
to be up “real soon now.” Qtrax also promises that anyone,
anywhere will be able to download any of its twenty-five
million songs perfectly legally, and listen to them practically
anywhere they like – along with an inserted advertisement.
Using peer-to-peer networking to relieve the burden on its
own servers, and Digital Rights Management, or DRM, Qtrax
ensures that there are no abuses of these pseudo-free

Most of the words that I used to describe Qtrax in the
preceding paragraph didn’t exist in common usage when
IUMA disappeared from the scene in the first year of this
millennium. The years between IUMA and Qtrax are a
geological age in Internet time, so it’s a good idea to walk back
through that era and have a good look at the fossils which
speak to how we evolved to where we are today.

In 1999, a curly-haired undergraduate at Boston’s
Northeastern University built a piece of software that allowed
him to share his MP3 collection with a few of his friends on
campus, and allowed him access to their MP3s. This scanned
the MP3s on each hard drive, publishing the list to a shared
database, allowing each person using the software to
download the MP3 from someone else’s hard drive to his own.
This is simple enough, technically, but Shawn Fanning’s
Napster created a dual-headed revolution. First, it was the
killer app for broadband: using Napster on a dial-up
connection was essentially impossible. Second, it completely
ignored the established systems of distribution used for
recorded music.

This second point is the one which has the most relevance to
my talk this morning; Napster had an entirely unpredicted
effect on the distribution methodologies which had been the
bedrock of the recording industry for the past hundred years.

The music industry grew up around the licensing, distribution
and sale of a physical medium – a piano roll, a wax recording,
a vinyl disk, a digital compact disc. However, when the
recording industry made the transition to CDs in the 1980s
(and reaped windfall profits as the public purchased new
copies of older recordings) they also signed their own death
warrants. Digital recordings are entirely ephemeral,
composed only of mathematics, not of matter. Any system
which transmitted the mathematics would suffice for the
distribution of music, and the compact disc met this need
only until computers were powerful enough to play the more
compact MP3 format, and broadband connections were fast
enough to allow these smaller files to be transmitted quickly.
Napster leveraged both of these criteria – the mathematical
nature of digitally-encoded music and the prevalence of
broadband connections on America’s college campuses – to
produce a sensation.

In its earliest days, Napster reflected the tastes of its collegeage
users, but, as word got out, the collection of tracks
available through Napster grew more varied and more
interesting. Many individuals took recordings that were only
available on vinyl, and digitally recorded them specifically to
post them on Napster. Napster quickly had a more complete
selection of recordings than all but the most comprehensive
music stores. This only attracted more users to Napster, who
added more oddities from their on collections, which
attracted more users, and so on, until Napster became seen as
the authoritative source for recorded music.

Given that all of this “file-sharing”, as it was termed,
happened outside of the economic systems of distribution
established by the recording industry, it was taking money out
of their pockets – probably something greater than billions of
dollars a year was lost, if all of these downloads had been
converted into sales. (Studies indicate this was unlikely –
college students have ever been poor.) The recording industry
launched a massive lawsuit against Napster in 2000, forcing
the service to shutter in 2001, just as it reached an incredible
peak of 14 million simultaneous users, out of a worldwide
broadband population of probably only 100 million. This
means that one in seven computers connected to the
broadband internet were using Napster just as it was being
shut down.

Here’s where it gets more interesting: the recording industry
thought they’d brought the horse back into the barn. What
they hadn’t realized was that the gate had burnt down. The
millions of Napster users had their appetites whet by a world
where an incredible variety of music was instantaneously
available with few clicks of the mouse. In the absence of
Napster, that pressure remained, and it only took a few weeks
for a few enterprising engineers to create a successor to
Napster, known as Gnutella, which provided the same service
as Napster, but used a profoundly different technology for its
filesharing. Where Napster had all of its users register their
tracks within a centralized database (which disappeared when
Napster was shut down) Gnutella created a vast, amorphous,
distributed database, spread out across all of the computers
running Guntella. Gnutella had no center to strike at, and
therefore could not be shut down.

It is because of the actions of the recording industry that
Gnutella was developed. If legal pressure hadn’t driven
Napster out of business, Gnutella would not have been
necessary. The recording industry turned out to be its own
worst enemy, because it turned a potentially profitable
relationship with its customers into an ever-escalating arms
race of file-sharing tools, lawsuits, and public relations

Once Gnutella and its descendants – Kazaa, Limewire, and
Acquisition – arrived on the scene, the listening public had
wholly taken control of the distribution of recorded music.
Every attempt to shut down these ever-more-invisible
darknets” has ended in failure and only spurred the
continued growth of these networks. Now, with Qtrax, the
recording industry is seeking to make an accommodation with
an audience which expects music to be both free and freely
available, falling back on advertising revenue source to
recover some of their production costs.

At first, it seemed that filmic media would be immune from
the disruptions that have plagued the recording industry –
films and TV shows, even when heavily compressed, are very
large files, on the order of hundreds of millions of bytes of
data. Systems like Gnutella, which allow you to transfer a file
directly from one computer to another are not particularly
well-suited to such large file transfers. In 2002, an
unemployed programmer named Bram Cohen solved that
problem definitively with the introduction of a new filesharing
system known as BitTorrent.

BitTorrent is a bit mysterious to most everyone not deeply
involved in technology, so a brief of explanation will help to
explain its inner workings. Suppose, for a moment, that I
have a short film, just 1000 frames in length, digitally
encoded on my hard drive. If I wanted to share this film with
each of you via Gnutella, you’d have to wait in a queue as I
served up the film, time and time again, to each of you. The
last person in the queue would wait quite a long time. But if,
instead, I gave the first ten frames of the film to the first
person in the queue, and the second ten frames to the second
person in the queue, and the third ten frames to the third
person in the queue, and so on, until I’d handed out all
thousand frames, all I need do at that point is tell each of you
that each of your “peers” has the missing frames, and that you
needed to get them from those peers. A flurry of transfers
would result, as each peer picked up the pieces it needed to
make a complete whole from other peers. From my point of
view, I only had to transmit the film once – something I can
do relatively quickly. From your point of view, none of you
had to queue to get the film – because the pieces were
scattered widely around, in little puzzle pieces, that you could
gather together on your own.

That’s how BitTorrent works. It is both incredibly efficient
and incredibly resilient – peers can come and go as they
please, yet the total number of peers guaratees that
somewhere out there is an entire copy of the film available at
all times. And, even more perversely, the more people who
want copies of my film, the easier it is for each successive
person to get a copy of the film – because there are more
peers to grab pieces from. This group of peers, known as a
“swarm”, is the most efficient system yet developed for the
distribution of digital media. In fact, a single, underpowered
computer, on a single, underpowered broadband link can, via
BitTorrent, create a swarm of peers. BitTorrent allows
anyone, anywhere, distribute any large media file at
essentially no cost.

It is estimated that upwards of 60% of all traffic on the
Internet is composed of BitTorrent transfers. Much of this
traffic is perfectly legitimate – software, such as the free
Linux operating system, is distributed using BitTorrent. Still,
it is well known that movies and television programmes are
also distributed using BitTorrent, in violation of copyright.
This became absolutely clear on the 14th of October 2003,
when Sky Broadcasting in the UK premiered the first episode
of Battlestar Galactica, Ron Moore’s dark re-imagining of the
famous shlocky 1970s TV series. Because the American
distributor, SciFi Channel, had chosen to hold off until
January to broadcast the series, fans in the UK recorded the
programmes and posted them to BitTorrent for American
fans to download. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the
episodes circulated in the United States – and conventional
thinking would reckon that this would seriously impact the
ratings of the show upon its US premiere. In fact, precisely
the opposite happened: the show was so well written and
produced that the word-of-mouth engendered by all this mass
piracy created an enormous broadcast audience for the series,
making it the most successful in SciFi Channel history.
In the age of BitTorrent, piracy is not necessarily a menace.

The ability to “hyperdistribute” a programme – using
BitTorrent to send a single copy of a programme to millions of
people around the world efficiently and instantaneously –
creates an environment where the more something is shared,
the more valuable it becomes. This seems counterintuitive,
but only in the context of systems of distribution which were
part-and-parcel of the scarce exhibition outlets of theaters
and broadcasters. Once everyone, everywhere had the
capability to “tuning into” a BitTorrent broadcast, the
economics of distribution were turned on their heads. The
distributioin gatekeepers, stripped of their power, whinge
about piracy. But, as was the case with recorded music, the
audience has simply asserted its control over distribution.
This is not about piracy. This is about the audience getting
whatever it wants, by any means necessary. They have the
tools, they have the intent, and they have the power of
numbers. It is foolishness to insist that the future will be
substantially different from the world we see today. We can
not change the behavior of the audience. Instead, we must all
adapt to things as they are.

But things as the are have changed more than you might
know. This is not the story of how piracy destroyed the film
industry. This is the story how the audience became not just
the distributors but the producers of their own content, and,
in so doing, brought down the high walls which separate
professionals from amateurs.

Lies Lies Lies by CHU

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